CHARLOTTE – Patrick Steptoe remembers everyone bringing a signature dish to family reunions.
Chicken, pies and other food lined the tables as his family dug into their meal. His family’s contribution? Lemonade. And his extended family couldn’t get enough.
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This seemed unique to Steptoe as a kid and a teenager. He said his relatives came to the reunion with gallon-sized containers to take the lemonade home with them.
“That always struck me,” Steptoe said. “Not only how good the lemonade was, but how special it was as a constant connection through a beverage through our family history.”
Now, Steptoe leads Luther Dryers, a lemonade business named after his great-grandfather, who started making the lemonade in 1909.
Steptoe said his great-grandfather was a slave when he started making lemonade. Because slave owners gave their slaves leftovers, Steptoe said Dryers used already squeezed lemons to make the lemonade.
The key, Steptoe said, is extracting the pectin from the inside of the lemon and the oil from the outside of the lemon to create the perfectly bodied lemonade. He still uses that method today.
Dryers would also flavor the lemonade using the resources around him, like the plants from the ground and fruit from the trees. Today, Steptoe said Luther Dryers Lemonade comes in a variety of flavors, including strawberry cheesecake, jalapeno, Carolina blueberry and apricot jam.
“It’s the same, practical sense of taking what God has provided you naturally and then that is the basis for a great lemonade – simple, yet unique and refreshing, but tastes totally different than what you would find today,” Steptoe said.
The business started while Steptoe was in college on a basketball scholarship. Before his last year, he injured his knee and found out he would need to sit out for the season, which would affect his scholarship. He did not want to leave school but did not have a way to pay for his education.
He went home to St. Louis that summer for another family reunion. There, he asked his grandmother for the lemonade recipe.
“She said she would give me the recipe under the condition that I would promise, since I would be the one carrying on the torch for the family, to turn this into a business and hopefully one day, develop it into something that could leave a legacy for our family,” Steptoe said.
Steptoe returned to college but had nowhere to make the volume of lemonade the recipe called for. He resorted to lining his dorm room bathtub with plastic and making the lemonade there to sell on campus. Then, he was able to get a store to carry it.
Months after giving Steptoe the recipe, his grandmother passed away.
“It is as much a part of a special process that creates a unique business, as it is also my link and attachment to my grandmother,” Steptoe said.
Luther Dryers Lemonade delivers to homes and businesses in the Charlotte-metro area and has a location at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. They also serve vegan, Southern comfort foods with the lemonade.
Denise Hairston cooks the vegan jambalaya, mac and cheese and lemon pound cake. She believes the hand-crafted aspect of Luther Dryers makes it unique and special.
“It’s all natural,” Hairston said. “You can see the fruit and vegetables in the actual juice, as opposed to buying lemonade from a store or any place else, you don’t see that. When you’re drinking Luther Dryers, it’s real strawberries, real pear or real blueberries.”
Hairston also believes the concept of a lemonade stand resonates with a lot of people who have memories of running lemonade stands as children.
“People can see what real lemonade tastes like and what it used to be,” Hairston said. “They can get that feeling again. Everything great is coming back again, and that’s what’s happening with Luther Dryers.”
Steptoe plans to open the first Luther Dryers lemonade stand location this summer in Charlotte. He hopes to eventually franchise the business and sell all of the lemonade flavors, along with lemonade ice cream, lemonade pies and lemonade salad dressings.
When the location opens, he plans to hire more people and partner with businesses like Postmates and DoorDash to get a bigger reach. As the business continues to grow, Steptoe hopes to position Luther Dryers as the lemonade that represents the Carolinas.
“We want to spread the gospel of my great-grandfather’s amazing recipe,” Steptoe said.
While Luther Dryers lemonade will be shared with a greater number of people, Steptoe still plans to pass the family recipe down to future generations.
“It’s no different than Hershey’s chocolate or Coca-Cola,” Steptoe said. “The recipe is the proprietary side of the business. That’s where the value is in that process. As simple as it may be, it’s the combination of ingredients that produces that one-of-a-kind taste.”
On the web: www.lutherdryers.com
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